Warning!: This article contains major plot spoilers for Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and mild spoilers for The Honourable Schoolboy and Smiley’s People. If you wish to remain unspoiled, then I advise that you skip this article.
John Le Carré’s work is known, perhaps more than anything, for the way in which details are used to tell the story contained within the novel – no detail is wasted, and nearly everything, no matter how obscure, goes towards the end of giving the reader insight into the story, or the characters who reside within it. One such detail is the use of what is known within the Circus as the workname. Within Le Carré’s work, and specifically in this instance, within the Karla Trilogy (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; The Honourable Schoolboy; and Smiley’s People), the Circus tradition of the workname provides a double function, both in the sense that the workname conveys information about the agent who bears it and in the sense that there is a very deliberate order and reasoning to which worknames the reader learns and when they learn them.
In order to understand Le Carré’s use of worknames as a device within his novels, it is essential that the reader understand the operational function of the workname. While it is easy to conflate an agent’s workname with an alias, what evidence can be pulled from the novels suggests that they are similar but not at all synonymous. Unlike an alias, which may be used in any number of ways (and any given agent may have a large number of them), the workname has a small number of prescribed uses. The first of these, as seen in all three novels, is for the sake of record-keeping. The Circus keeps an extensive database of worknames associated agents both in-action and retired (Smiley’s People 62), and when an agent is mentioned in files, reports, and other such documents, they are commonly referred to by their workname (Tinker, Tailor 78, 90). In addition, an agent will generally – in the field at least, use their workname with other agents, particularly if there is a fear of wire-tapping or other forms of surveillance (The Honourable Schoolboy 518). However, with more casual informants, the agent will generally use an alias rather than their workname, which is more closely guarded. Continue reading